Home' Technology Review : May June 2008 Contents REVIEWS 83
forgive the fact that my purchase of Bohe-
mian Rhapsody prompted "Just for You" to
recommend The Best of Foreigner Live, but
not that buying Van Halen's "Dance the
Night Away" provoked a recommendation
for Rush. While I accept that recommen-
dation engines have their own quantitative
quirks and eccentricities, those suggestions
are just terrible. Apple's engine appears to
give more weight to era than it does to genre,
tempo, or style. (An Apple spokesperson
whom I contacted declined to be more
specific about how its recommendation
Apple's recommendation software is
worse than Amazon's in other ways, too.
When I buy a song or two from one band,
why does the engine ask if I want to buy an
entire album from another? I should get indi-
vidual song recommendations before I get
album suggestions. Apple's iTunes pushes
albums and songs: it feels like a hard sell. I
want to be sonically seduced, not commer-
cially assaulted. Get me to sample---for free,
of course---another song before asking if I
own or want to own the entire album. If I
like the song, I'll buy it. Honest!
The "Just for You" interface looks pretty
enough. But as an interactive experience, it's
displeasing. Unlike Amazon, the site feels
more like a record shop that wants to move
product than the den of a friend with great
taste in music. Recommendation engines
should liberate retailers from bad online
store design, but the iTunes site reminds me
of what I like least about shopping. Where is
Jonathan Ive, Apple's legendary industrial
designer, when we need him?
These complaints notwithstanding, my
bet is that recommendation algorithms and
interfaces will rapidly branch out. In the
future, perhaps Google's Gmail will tell you
whom you should forward that urgent e-mail
to, or remind you to keep in touch with a
friend you've inadvertently ignored. Mar-
rying Gmail's context-sensitive advertising
to a decent recommendation engine would
boost the value of both. What's more, it's
easy to imagine Facebook suggesting what
information should be shared with whom---
or who should be sharing more with you.
The rise of the social graph (an abstract
representation of the social connections
between users of digital networks; see
"Between Friends," March/April 2008 and
at TechnologyReview.com) should enable
different companies' recommendation
engines to work together, o ering financial
advice, travel options, and more. Wouldn't
it be intriguing to see what stocks and funds
people like you bought? Perhaps these tech-
nologies will ultimately go meta, with some
startup o ering recommendation engines
that let you pick the best recommendation
engines for you. Advice about advice might
be a great business.
For all my excitement about the future
of recommendation services, I can't help
feeling the way I felt about search in 2001.
Existing recommendation engines have a
lot of value, but they're still primitive. Dis-
tinctions between browsing and comparison
(that is, between looking at products and
choosing between them) are poorly under-
stood. We've yet to see how user-generated
tags make product and service descriptions
more precise and useful. The more specific,
explicit, and time-sensitive the tag, the better
the potential recommendations will be.
Smart people all over the world are work-
ing on these problems. Billions of dollars are
at stake. Netflix is o ering a million dollars
to anyone who can improve the e cacy of
its (exceptionally successful) recommenda-
tion engine. That's a small price to pay for a
company whose future depends on its ability
to compete with Blockbuster and the digi-
tal video delivery companies of the future.
It is an interesting and important problem,
because it's not only individuals who watch
the movies, but couples, families, and friends.
Perhaps the winning algorithm will be opti-
mized for the preferences of groups.
When I get good recommendations, I
spend my time and money di erently. Even
better recommendations will dramatically
increase the value of that time and money.
That's a digital future I crave and expect. I
hope Internet innovators take my recom-
mendations as seriously as I take theirs.
MICHAEL SCHRAGE IS A CONSULTANT ON INNOVATION,
A RESEARCHER AT MIT'S SLOAN SCHOOL, AND THE
AUTHOR OF SERIOUS PLAY: HOW THE WORLD'S BEST
COMPANIES SIMULATE TO INNOVATE.
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